http://www.Dungeons&Dragons.com‘City Under The Sand’ takes place in the Dark Sun setting, an interesting anomaly among the various ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ worlds. It’s a ‘dying world’ sort of place. Its failing ecology and lack of resources attributed to the use of magic as, in the Dark Sun setting, arcane magic draws its power from defiling the natural world in some way. As a result, magic users are hated and, with diminishing resources to go around, life is hard and often violent.
If this all sounds a lot like Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique setting to you, you’re not wrong, and Jeff Mariotte’s ‘City Under The Sand’ owes a lot to those short stories. Desert cities governed by oppressive rulers ruling over a nervous and mean-spirited populace. Strange cults, elemental forces, mysterious enemies…yes, yes and yes. But is Mariotte’s longer and more convoluted stab at the dying world setting more entertaining than those of Ashton Smith? I’m not convinced.
One problem is that the hero character doesn’t entirely make sense. He’s gifted with a psionic (mental) power that gives him exceptional skill at metalworking. In a world where metal of any kind is so rare people fight over it, a skilled smith should, by rights, be a person of influence at least and perhaps a person of wealth and power as well. But not here. Instead, lead character Aric mostly bumps along the bottom strata of society with the social outcasts and nobodies. Mariotte might well want to put Aric down there for storytelling reasons but, without any sort of justification, it feels a bit contrived.
Another problem is that there’s a lot of filler as well as needless complications to the story. A lot of the first half of the book involves trekking across the desert one way and then another. That sort of thing is a staple of fantasy novels generally, not just D&D novels, and handled correctly can give the writer time to develop the characters through side quests of various kinds. But, unfortunately, Mariotte tends to just throw monsters at his team of protagonists, seemingly without much thought beyond giving them something to kill and loot. A traditional D&D gaming technique to be sure, but repeatedly within a novel that feels overlong anyway, the result isn’t terribly satisfying even though the combat itself is lively and well-written.
The complexity of the novel does give the reader plenty to think about, though, and there’s a veritable legion of second-tier characters filling the niches and shadows of the city of Nibenay. It’s a shame about the filler and the limited character development though and more seriously, dealing with the Big Bad at the end of the novel comes across as a bit of anti-climax. Readers interested in the dying world fantasy sub-genre will probably find ‘City Under The Sand’ entertaining though, but casual readers may find it unnecessarily long and convoluted.
(pub: Dungeons & Dragons, 2014. 404 page paperback. Price: $ 7.99 (US), $ 8.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7869-5623-4)